Folks, I’ve been trying to wrap up this blog post for over a month now. I’m stuck at the part where I compare Puppy’s behavior when we’ve completely disempowered him to that of the citizens of Ferguson, MO after an unarmed black teenager was fatally shot by a white police officer there. It’s a classic case of overreaching; I’m hoping to make a profound point with this analogy, but I don’t know what that point is. Am I critiquing parenting practices? Am I commenting on culture and social justice? Or am I merely observing a psychological tennis match between oppressors and oppressed?
While I dither over the so-what, Ferguson has given way to ISIS in the headlines, and the kiddos have given me heaps of blogging content that I’ve had to shelve because I can’t start a new post until I’ve finished this one. So, how about we make this a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure post? I’ll throw up what I have thus far, and when we get to the narrative fork in the road, you tell me which tine to take. Brilliant! I get to wash my hands of this malingering metaphor while you get to shoulder the editorial burden. I’m sure this is a wildly successful approach to growing my readership.
A Decent Opening
When last I blogged, Puppy was just coming up on four-and-a-half years old. Now I see we’ve passed his four-and-three-quarters birthday* and I ought to accept that my blog-every-five-days goal is dead in the potty water.
I have lots to share from the last three months. Let’s begin with a transcript of last night’s bedtime conversation with Puppy:
Puppy: Which is bigger: an airplane, or a really, really, really, really, really, big head? A TALL head—a really tall, big head.
intrepid librarian: Do you mean a tall head like from the game, “How Tall Am I?”
Puppy: No, I mean a really super big head you can climb on.
il: Like the big head statue at the sculpture park?
Puppy: Yeah, like a statue! A really tall, big statue.
il: Well, let me ask you something: Is the statue bigger than an airplane?
Puppy: No! Covers his eyes in anguish. You’re supposed to guess which is bigger!
I should probably mention, here, that Puppy missed his nap today, so his drama quotient defies scientific notation.
il: Cracking up because he is really pissed off, and a four-year-old’s portrayal of pissed-off is hilarious.
Puppy: Get dada; I want dada.
il: Well, what kind of plane is it? A jet plane? A seaplane? A toy plane?
Puppy: A jet plane.
il: And is it bigger than a statue head?
Puppy: Rending his hair and flopping his body side-to-side. You’re not playing it right! I want dada! I want dadaaaaaa!
il: Okay! Okay! The plane is bigger.
Puppy: Noooo! I said it was a really, really, really big head! Wailing into his hands. Get dada; I want dada.
il: No, come on Puppy—give me another one; I’ll do better.
Heated discussion about the rules of the game, whether my wrong answer actually ends the round, or if I’m meant to repeat it whilst pretending it’s a brand new day.
il: Raising my voice to cut through his whining. Which is bigger: an ant or a duck?
Puppy: A duck. Smiles; sits back up. Which is bigger: a tree or a bird?
il: I really want to ask him if he means a bonsai tree.
Puppy: Which one’s bigger, mommy? A tree or a bird?
il: We have a bonsai tree in the house; he could mean a bonsai.
Puppy: Mommy! Tree or bird?
il: Ostriches? Baby Christmas trees? I’m starting to crack up again.
Puppy: Mommy?!?! Beginning to panic.
il: A tree. Pride swallowed. Okay, which is bigger: a single blade of grass or your Big Blue Bear?
Puppy: Big Blue Bear. Happy that mommy is sane again. Do another one.
il: It’s your turn to do one for me.
Puppy: No, you have to do… counting his fingers… three to make five, and then I do one more to make five.
il: That doesn’t even make sense. It’s your turn.
Puppy: No! I did four and you do two and I do two to five!
il: Dude. Which is bigger: Two or five?
Puppy: Nooooo! We’re playing with stuff, not numbers!
il: Christ. Which is bigger: my imagination or the universe?
Puppy: I WANT DADAAAAAA!
Somehow, I thought messing with my kids would be more enjoyable. My dad always seemed to get such a kick out of it.
And here’s an outtake from this summer’s best Babes, Out of the Mouths of entry:
Puppy: I have to poop! Doing the pee-pee dance.
il: Okay! The bathroom is right over here. (We had just arrived at a vacation house we’d rented for the weekend, by the way.)
Puppy: Runs in, slams the door. Immediately reopens the door. The toilet is too small! Clutching his bottom and dancing from foot to foot.
il: Um, okay. There’s another toilet in this room – go!
Puppy: Runs in, slams the door. Immediately reopens the door. This one’s too small, too!
il: Those are the only toilets we have!
Puppy: Looks back at the toilet perplexedly, still bouncing. But, what if I have a lot of poop?
il: Well, how about you flush your poop before you wipe yourself clean? Then you flush the toilet paper separately…
Puppy: Closes the door. Immediately reopens the door. Guys, we’re going to need a bigger toilet.
I may be romanticizing the memory, but I recall he delivered the last line absolutely dead-pan, à la Roy Scheider. He did eventually poop in the too-small toilet, and he emerged from the bathroom a fourth time—this time buck-naked—to worry aloud that the toilet will clog when he flushes. But it flushed just fine. And no, I never did get a look at the load of poop he put in it.
A Perfectly Adequate Segue
The Puppy is as adorable as ever, but his tyrannical bouts are increasing in number. The Urban Liberal Parenting Handbook assures me this is normal for a 4.5-year-old, but I find I don’t need the handbook; I already know it’s normal, at any age. Of course it is—Puppy’s loudest, howlingest, most enraged episodes erupt when we (Husband and I) have completely disempowered him. When we take away his negotiation chips and put up the impermeable wall of parental authority. Oh, he’ll prod for a weakness in our resolve—he’ll try to make us laugh, or give us the lips-and-eyebrows face that’s impossible to stay serious in front of; he’ll offer to obey in exchange for five more minutes of play, or after he’s parked all of his cars. Eventually, he’ll try to muscle his way out of whatever hold we’ve put him in—and if we’ve gotten that far, if we’re manhandling him, I can’t help but feel we’ve taken a misstep somewhere. How is his ensuing rage any different from that of the citizens of Ferguson, MO? And if that analogy is apt, who’s the tyrant now?
In our defense, we’re tired. And we do get it right a solid 85% of the time: we’ve established the rules and the reasons for them, communicated them repeatedly and at his level, and consistently imposed the penalties we’ve agreed are the consequences of infraction, yada, yada, yada. Another 10% of the time we just avoid the situation altogether, either by ignoring the infraction or giving in granting him clemency. But it’s that lingering 5% that makes me doubt all my parenting decisions—that makes me feel I’m on the wrong side of history.
This is Where I Lose My Way
And it’s maddeningly easy to take the despotic path—far easier than it is to parent well. We’ve known this since Arthurian times; the sword of peace is heavier, more difficult to wield than the sword of war. Negotiation is grueling; “Because I said so,” is uncomplicated. But if I exercise Because-I-Said-So parenting, am I contributing to a generation of tyrants? Or lemmings to tyrants? Which is worse?
Dude. Character-building is hard.
Wasn’t This Supposed to be About Disempowerment?
As the daughter of a sociologist, I’ve long leaned toward the Nurture side of the Nature vs. Nurture debate: our characters evolve in response to cultural cues. I might have given a slight nod to environmental influences outside the sociological, but genetics had zero bearing on personality in my book. Husband is a biologist in his alternate life, and he stands firmly on the side of Nature—especially when observed through the lens of evolutionary biology. It’s been a happy little dichotomy in our marriage—a source of lively, well-mannered debate.
But then we had kids and I realized that what comes out is what you get.
WCOIWYG?! That’s My Message?
Culture just flips a bunch of switches in our brains—which, yes, may be what keeps us all from turning into psychopaths, but that’s about the extent of culture’s influence.
I’m Not Even Sure I Believe What I Just Wrote, but I Have to Bring This Mess to a Conclusion
So when Puppy is howling in impotent rage, it’s because culture failed to activate the region of his brain that knows what’s good for it? For the love of freshmen English composition…
What Path Should I Have Taken?
- Deconstruct various parenting manuals’ theories for handling in-your-face toddler-obstinacy; mock ruthlessly.
- Explore roots of racial tension in US history and compare to societal expectations for modern parenting practices; submit for doctoral thesis review.
- Wait for some traumatic, personal event to render the topic moot, then ditch the composition to report on more pressing matters. Something like… I don’t know—the Kitten breaking her leg?**
- Switch gears at “despotic path,” quote Pol Pot or the latest Republican nimrod, launch into an apoplectic tirade against mom-on-mom hating, justify poor parenting decisions as infrequent and really not at all like Pol Pot or Republicans.
Please write your vote on the base of a Sigma 35mm F1.4 DG HSM lens for Canon and send it to intrepid librarian, c/o King County Correctional Facility.
I’d like to end this post with a poem. I happened to catch The Writer’s Almanac on NPR the other day, during which Garrison Keillor read out a poem entitled, “For a Five-Year-Old.” It resonated, so I’d like to share the piece here, annotated with the sensations that blossomed in my mind as the poem opened itself to me:
For a Five-Year-Old, by Fleur Adcock
Oh, how lovely. The Puppy will be five soon;
maybe I’ll write this poem in his birthday card.
A snail is climbing up the window-sill
into your room, after a night of rain.
Maybe I’ll start a tradition of giving
my kids poems on their birthdays.
You call me in to see and I explain
that it would be unkind to leave it there:
I wish I shared more of my
literary interests with them.
It’s not too late.
it might crawl to the floor; we must take care
that no one squashes it.
Yes! This will be perfect for Puppy
and carry it outside, with careful hand,
to eat a daffodil.
He may not appreciate it now,
but when he’s older, he’ll read the
poems I selected for him and know—
all over again—that I love him.
I see, then, that a kind of faith prevails:
your gentleness is moulded still by words
who have trapped mice and shot wild birds,
who drowned your kittens,
who betrayed your closest relatives and who purveyed
the harshest kind of truth to many another,
But that is how things are: I am your mother,
And we are kind to snails.
Well… I can’t argue with that.
*Yes, the Kitten is also aging—at pretty much the same rate as Puppy. I only focused on Puppy here because I opened my previous post with a mention of his four-and-a-half-year milestone, and I figured it would be all flow-y if I opened this post similarly. Of course, you’d have to have read the previous post recently to appreciate the parallels… I’m not worried, though, because when I get a book deal, the only lag between posts will be in the amount of time it takes one to turn the page.
**Happened. Still wrote this post.